Death of US Ambassador in Libya Marks the Collapse of Washington’s Middle Eastern Policy
They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind
The recent tragedy provoked by the release of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” – the killing of US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of the US consulate staff – in Benghazi, the city which became famous as the epicenter of the Libyan revolution, and the spill of Muslim rage worldwide, highlighted the pivotal character of what is happening at the moment in global politics. Regardless of the much smaller death toll, the developments spell trouble for the US which, politically, may overshadow September 11 in the long run…
At this watershed moment, it is impossible to conceal from the general public what has long become an open secret to the expert community – the jinni released by America’s new Aladdins in the part of the world where the fairytale was born is not going to make anybody’s wishes come true or even stay within the prescribed confines. Rather, the magical being has designs of its own, and Washington’s hopes that the forces propelled to power by popular protests across the Arab world would be grateful for the US backing to the point of giving up on their legacies and interests obviously crumble. The US agenda behind the support is impossible to hide from Washington’s partners and all others in the East. On the verbal level, the US contribution may seem to be appreciated, but the thinly disguised US selfishness will be prompting responses aligned with the Arab world’s autonomous reckoning, with no offenses to be forgiven in gratitude for the past assistance. There is sinister irony in the fact that slain US diplomat Christopher Stevens was the coordinator behind the US aid to the Libyan opposition at the time it was wrestling with the Gaddafi regime. Conventional wisdom dictates that “a revolution is like Saturn – it devours its own children”, but, as we have seen, fathers may be at risk too.
A host of causes – from the accumulation of the energy of social protests to the games played by shadowy overseas centers and groups – are cited to explain the phenomenon of the Arab Spring. The combination of those must have produced the known results, with the objective preconditions for mass discontent playing the key role, but the starting point not to be overlooked was the adoption by Obama’s Administration of a certain doctrine which had enormous and lasting repercussions for the Middle East.
The US executive policies are articulated in the form of the so-called Presidential Policy Directives (PPD), which are usually preceded by Presidential Policy Studies (PPS). The latter incorporate advice from various government agencies to be presented to the National Security Council which, within months, puts together the PPDs. The above being a traditional practice, the directives revolve around global security or narrower US foreign policy issues and remain strictly under wraps. Their titles – mostly those of PPSs which have to be circulated on a fairly wide scale – occasionally become known outside of the authorized community. The site of the Federation of American Scientists, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, for example, lists ten PPSs compiled in the course of B. Obama’s presidency (http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/psd/). According to the site, PPS 11 tentatively titled Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa was inaugurated on August 12, 2010, which suggests that a PPD meant to kickstart the reform – with the CIA, the US Department of State, and the gigantic US propaganda machine to be involved plus the commensurate resources to be poured in – had to be signed by the end of the year. Chances are it was PPD 13 whose title was kept secret.
It is hardly the case that the authors of the documents were able to foresee the tectonic shifts their initiative had the potential to bring about. The belief in the US unlimited might, upheld by conspiracy theorists and likely fostered from within the US Administration, appears to be a gross overstatement, causing the verdict “Akela has missed” to sound increasingly often. The underlying assumption in the directives was that Western-style democracies would mushroom across the Arab world as soon as the secular but defiant regimes, as in Libya and Syria, or aging dictatorships, as in Tunisia and Egypt, are removed and free elections are held in the countries nominated for modernization. The presence of the forces of radical Islam was not necessarily ignored, but redirecting or taming them did not look like an unsolvable problem. The earliest indication that the concept was taking shape could be found in Obama’s May, 2009 speech in Cairo.
Analysts dealing with the Middle East on a professional basis – for example, the group centered around Israel’s DEBKA, the analog of America’s STRATFOR – were from the outset concerned about Washington’s shortsightedness and warned that the forces to be unleashed in the upcoming revolts would be impossible to control. Politics and religion being tightly interwoven in the Arab world, free elections in it imminently empower the forces campaigning on the traditional and commonly accepted Muslim values and filter out the proponents of abstract Western models. This is exactly the scenario we see materializing.
The US reaction to the serial wins scored in the region by the Muslim Brotherhood and the like and to the pervasive strengthening of its radical groups was confusion, not optimism. The US decision-makers handling the Middle East had to adapt to what was coming up as news were flowing in and in no time started to sell spectacular failures as accomplishments carefully planned ahead. Admitting to huge mistakes is out of question for the current US Administration considering that the elections are drawing closer. Instead, Washington readily credits the Muslim Brotherhood with moderation, says the group will leave all the deals with the US and Israel intact and will be absolutely cooperative, and hopes that the financial leverage will help reign in Cairo and others. At the same time – and contrary to the logic of the wider US policy – Washington expressed satisfaction that Islamists failed to garner the lion’s share of the vote in the first post-revolt election in Libya, though the recent Benghazi drama signaled that, no matter at which angle things are examined, there is absolutely nothing to celebrate.
To spare the new friends a wave of completely deserved criticisms, the White House pretends to be unaware to what extent the post-Arab Spring countries are starting to ignore elementary democratic norms such as women’s rights that could be taken for granted before the regime changes and how fast they slide towards the introduction of the Sharia code which is integral to the local traditions but impossible to reconcile with the Western democracy standards. The countries engage deeper with the Persian Gulf monarchies which notoriously despise civil liberties, while the US growing sensitivity to the Muslim world’s otherness clearly worries Israel whose premier openly slams the Obama Administration over its Middle Eastern policies. Under some circumstances – as in Syria at the moment – Washington simply cedes the leading role to its partners, disturbed by the radicalism of the anti-Assad forces but still helping them. The US capitalizes on the Shia-Sunni divisions but the side effect of the policy is the growing American dependence on the Sunni camp.
It should be further taken into account that the level of respect for the US in the Middle East sank unprecedentedly low due to the war in Iraq and the string of accompanying scandals, which makes the Muslim Brotherhood feel ever more shy about the partnership with the West and reinforces the positions of the group’s hardline Salafi rivals. Muslim moderates feel uncomfortable even about exploiting Washington’s tendency to put on a brave face and, like Egyptian president M. Morsi, publicly distance themselves from the US. Overall, the notorious civilizational gap stays chronically unbridged.
President Obama, therefore, has to grapple with severe problems, with every option on the table promising more headaches. On the one hand, if the White House limits its response to rhetoric fireworks and useless measures like sending a couple of destroyers to the Libyan coast, the world, including its Muslim part, will be quick to realize that Washington cannot cope with the situation of its own making, and the region will become quite immune to further US influences. No doubt, Mr. Romney’s team is not going to miss the golden opportunity to bite Obama over the disposition in the run-up to the elections. Polls show that foreign policy aptitude, formerly the third in the list of the US electorate’s priorities, is climbing to the top of the list. Commentators actually say that Romney should not have attacked Obama over foreign policy so vigorously before the nationwide shock in the wake of the Banghazi tragedy is over. On the other hand, a forceful US reaction would trigger new rounds of protests and a deeper radicalization in the Arab world, where anger is not narrowly focused on the notorious film but is directed at the whole West with its perceived absence of barriers of any kind.
It would be profoundly wrong to rejoice over the difficulties the US is facing. The situation comes with mounting fatalities, a tide of chaos over the region, and a sense of frightening unpredictability. Surely the US is to blame, but no country will benefit from the developments, and finding a cure will require efforts globally. Regardless of who wins the upcoming race for presidency in the US, the White House will have to learn that settlement and progress in the Middle East may only be based on respect for both local traditions and the interests of all the countries and political forces involved. Besides, the time has come for the US to decide to what extent it is open to coordinating with other competent countries, including Russia – on equal terms, importantly – the efforts aimed at getting the region to revert to normalcy.